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Marc overanalyzes comedy with Brian Regan



Brian Regan doesn't have a name for his tour because, well, he started on the road in 1984 and hasn't stopped yet.

"It's like the Gilligan's Island tour," the comedian said. "Went out for a three-hour tour and somehow never got back."

Before his S.S. Minnow docks in Indianapolis, I caught up with him for a conversation that included a fair amount of comedy analysis. See what you think.

NUVO: My 13-year-old daughter and some friends were sitting around a computer last weekend, howling at a video on YouTube. I went to check it out and it was one of your bits, animated. ( Apparently, there are a lot of animated videos with your routines. Have you seen them?

Regan: I have heard of them. I didn't want to look for a while because I like to think of the jokes the way I have them visually in my head. But my wife was watching them with our kids and she said, "You've gotta check these out." I watched one or two – they were stick-figure kinds of things. But I didn't want to watch too many of them. I'm flattered people would want to do anything with my comedy, but I don't like to overly indulge by watching myself. Even when I'm in stick-figure form.

NUVO: You said you visualize the jokes in your head. Explain that to me.

Regan: There's an expression that I learned years ago: They say comedy is pictures. So if you tell a joke to someone, even if it's a one-liner, in the teller's mind there's a picture and in the receiver's mind there's a picture. You look at the picture in your mind and then you laugh. I guess it's impossible for that to be the same for everybody. You assume when you tell a joke to someone, the other person is envisioning the same thing that you see.

But that's not always the case. I noticed that clearly when I did the Dr. Katz cartoon. They would animate comedians' routines within the show and when I watched how my stuff was animated, it was so bizarre to me – and it was so funny to me – because I'm hearing my voice, yet these pictures are clearly different than the pictures in my mind. Maybe everybody has a different joke going on in their head. Maybe none of us are sharing anything. We're all laughing at our own visuals.

NUVO: I'd never heard that. Now I'll never be able to hear a joke and not think of pictures.

Regan: I like to take good ol' fun comedy and destroy it by overanalyzing it. (Laughs.) But I think Mark Twain – I hope I have the originator of the quote correctly – said, "Comedy is like a frog. You can dissect both, but you're gonna kill both."

NUVO: This also raises another issue: My daughter will sit and watch Craig Ferguson with me, but I think you're the first comedian she's latched onto. Are you seeing more kids gravitating toward your work?

Regan: It started when my CD came out in '97. At the time, I was working exclusively in comedy clubs, where you had to be 18 or 21 to get in, depending on the state. So my comedy was not geared at all toward kids. It was always clean, but it was for the people in the audience – us reminiscing about our childhood, that sort of thing. Then I released the CD and it was a surprise to me that in addition to people my age, young people were getting into it and enjoying it.

It wasn't 'til I started playing theaters where all ages could come that I realized that young people are coming out to the shows. It was weird to be backstage and peek out through the curtains and see kids holding balloons. This isn't what I thought of when I got into comedy, but I'm glad some kids show up. Not every joke they're going to relate to – I do have jokes about having high cholesterol that they won't get into as much as older people – but at least they wouldn't be offended by any of my stuff. I don't try to gear it toward anyone. I just write what's interesting to me.

NUVO: There's a quote in a Providence Journal article about you where Patton Oswalt says, "Brian Regan's comedy stuns me because he can start down the road with a premise that every comedian knows has not one scrap of flesh left on its bones and find a new angle of attack that yields prime cuts of comedic meat." What's your reaction to that?

Regan: I was incredibly flattered when I found out that he'd written some nice words about me. Having anybody like you makes you feel good, but when your peers like what you do, it's a real nice tip of the hat. It makes me feel tremendous that any other comedian would like what I do. Then to actually sit down and write something like that? It was very nice, and I made sure I got him on the phone the day after I had heard about it and thanked him personally.

NUVO: I thought it was phenomenally nice, especially because comics tend to be a little jealous when someone has achieved the level of success you've achieved.

Regan: He doesn't have to be jealous because he probably wrote that from his star trailer while he was working on one of his movies. I wasn't taking anything away from him. Comedians draw a tight circle. If comedians decide you're funny, you're in the circle. And if they decide you're not funny, then you're out. I'm oversimplifying it, but there's something about being funny that you're allowed into the fold.

NUVO: Do you have a new joke I can share?

Regan: I just wrote this this morning. I have no idea if it's funny.

NUVO: Try it out. I'm a good audience.

Regan: I'm in bad shape. I got hurt playing fantasy football. I clicked online to get my stats and I got carpal tunnel syndrome.


Regan: I'll try it onstage and see what happens.

NUVO: When you do something like that – when you try a joke onstage – are there times where you say, "I can't fix this." Or do you figure out what you need to do to make it work. In other words, is it a learning process onstage?

Regan: I would rarely just throw something out after one attempt. It goes back to what I said before about comedy and pictures. Sometimes you think, "Somehow, I didn't communicate what's in my mind. I didn't communicate something similar to the people in the audience." Because if I think it's funny – not that I'm so high and mighty – and it doesn't work, sometimes you haven't communicated it properly.

I remember talking to another comedian about this very thing. He was talking about this joke that he had about a guy who worked at the Space Center. The guy walks into the room and says, "Hey, where's the rocket?" The other guy says, "I don't know. It was out there, and I was sitting here, and I was hungry, and I pushed this button that says 'lunch.'" He said it was very inconsistent. People sometimes laughed, sometimes didn't laugh. And then one time, when he was pressing the button, he looked up a little bit. He said from then on, the joke worked all the time. So sometimes you've got to goose it a little bit and help people.

NUVO: I was picturing in my mind you telling your joke about fantasy football and doing something physical. And obviously you're going to tell it with more gusto onstage because that's you. So I can definitely see that working.

Regan: And I think my stuff isn't as funny in print as it is onstage because they are little performance pieces. They're little vignettes you've got to act out and play both characters in the joke. I remember reading a preview about myself one time where the writer was being very nice, but he wrote: "Brian Regan, who talks about airlines, food and doctor visits, is performing at such-and-such a club." I was like, "Wow. I wonder what couple is sitting around the breakfast table going, 'We have to go see this guy! He's exploring our favorite topics!'" I was reading it going, "Is that what I do? I wouldn't go see me."


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